On their second - highly awaited (by me) - CD, Chor Bazaar, Trickbaby's lead vocalist Saira Hussain starts by telling us a story. She's watching a late night caper movie. She's mouthing off a bit while watching. One thing leads to another and all of a sudden she's in the middle of an argument. Later she mentions an addiction to bidding at auctions simply because she has a competitive streak. She finishes the song by mock arguing with a lover.
The song is called "Fighter" - and its emblematic of several things that are worth noting about Trickbaby.
Foremost, Trickbaby markets itself as an Asian fusion band - they sound primarily like a mid tempo techno act. If you had to pick a genre, you'd call them Tribal Lounge House although that wouldn't do justice to the breakout sound they've refined on this CD.
So where does the Asian aspect of Trickbaby come from? Several places. Saira - who appears to have listened to a lot of old filmi music - will often sing in Hindi or Punjabi, although she sings everything primarily with Western straight notes and influences. Still because its a different language, it sounds exotic.
Occasionally Steve Ager, who founded Trickbaby with Saira, and who programs their songs, will throw in a delicious lick or two of Bollywood pop. But its the percussion that gives Trickbaby its fusion mojo. There's dhols, tablas and drums - and they all blend seamlessly together in the songs. Ager layers it with one more trick, but more on that later.
You'll see a great example of this on "Baja", a song about a series of observations that hang around Mexican landscapes. Saira sings this with seductive shortness of breath - the songs reaches a crescendo with drums and dhols, but at no point do they overwhelm the nifty spanish guitar licks or synth hooks.
There is a slightly jangly version of this signature sound on "Broken Dreams", a Punjabi-English song with a mellow flute and faded backup vocals that recall a radio in the background playing old Bollywood songs. Its an affectionate, charming tribute to what an entire generation grew up listening to.
I've heard Saira call Trickbaby eclectic - but they aren't so in the truest sense of the word. They have a well defined sound. They rarely deviate from it. On the aforementioned "Fighter" for example, Saira barely raises her voice.
"Crisis" about an imminent breakup, is entirely constructed around guitar riffs and a toned down balle balle beat. Saira channels her anguish at her lover in a voice that's quiet, somewhat sad and near apologetic.
By subverting the emotion in favor of the groove, Trickbaby is able to create their sound: creamy and drop dead sexy.
Indian percussion can tend to be loud. Take the dhol for instance - its got so much personality that it can easily dominate a melody (anyone else's head still hurt from the Singh is Kinng soundtrack?). Trickbaby's songs, when programmed, tend to amp down the percussion making the songs sound smooth and polished. Its one smart beat instead of a battle of instruments.
Last thing to note: Trickbaby are so catchy they'll stick to the back of your ears. They haven't made a song yet I don't absolutely love.
"Light up my life" is constructed around one hypnotic chant. There are periods of relentless vocals that run over Indian percussion. In between Trickbaby break their song into down tempo bits that create a great sense of hang and turn on a spurt of the tabla. Its simple catchy stuff, but the programming makes the song rich in texture.
There are more pleasures on the CD. Saira sings the seductive "Babu" in Hindi. Its a superbly kinetic song that gets its momentum from a clap driven percussion.There is an orgasmic hook and spoken vocals that finish off the song.
On the hugely surprising and innovative title track "Chor Bazaar", Trickbaby invite Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hutz (vocals), Sergey Ryabtzev (violin), and Yuri Lemeshev (accordion) to create a madcap, Roma flavored tribute to Mumbai's one of a kind, dubious-goods markets. I have no idea what Eugene is singing on that track, but clearly a swirling party is at hand where anything could happen.
Chor Bazaar also contains updates versions of two previous, defining singles: Nine Parts of Desire (which always reminds me of a Spaghetti Western) and the foot tapping Neelaa.
Now the question is: with SaReGaMa launching Trickbaby in India, can their sound find an audience in the desh? Its going to be a bit of a challenge - Trickbaby's music plays well in dance clubs and they could rock a show. But Indian music - as we all know - is dominated by Bollywood.
Ironically enough, the way to musical diversity will likely come from the 800 lb gorilla itself. There are enough music directors in the film industry who will take risks, break the norms and challenge Indian audiences out of their comfort zones. Happily the audiences seem to have signed up if not exactly opened up their wallets yet.
Trickbaby has broken into Bollywood before - hopefully we'll talk to them about it sometime soon. For now, I wish them success - they are more than deserving of it.
More if you're interested:
The video for Fighter
The video for Creamy
Abhishek Bachchan in Nine Parts of Desire
Priyanka Chopra shakes a leg on Neelaa
The Trickbaby story
Trickbaby's web site
Lyrics from Chor Bazaar